Why Is the U.S. Coast Guard in Huatulco?

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 2.01.36 PMBy Brooke Gazer

While visiting the beach in Santa Cruz, you may have seen one of the American Coast Guard cutters that are frequently docked on the cruise ship pier. You might wonder why American military ships are patrolling Mexican waters. A few of the Coast Guard personnel stayed at our B&B while on shore leave, and they provided me with an entire education as to their mission. Although they are officially part of the U.S. Armed Forces, they operate under the Department of Homeland Security. Two of their primary roles involve maritime law enforcement and search and rescue.

A prime mission of the Coast Guard is to reduce the supply of drugs from the source, by denying smugglers sea access. The Guard patrols six million square miles, including the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Along the Pacific, their region extends from Alaska in the north to beyond the border of Chile in the south. In meeting the challenge of patrolling this vast area, the Coast Guard coordinates closely with other countries, including Mexico, disrupting and deterring the flow of illegal drugs. Coast Guard drug interdiction accounts for more than half of all U.S. government seizures of cocaine annually. In the two-year period of 2014-15, they seized 165 vessels containing almost 350,000 pounds of cocaine.

The Coast Guard is also responsible for rescuing ships in distress, and many interventions involve human trafficking. Our guests described one such rescue situation. While on patrol, their cutter encountered a craft that was no longer seaworthy. The captain and first mate had already deserted ship, leaving 300 Haitians to fend for themselves somewhere in the vast Caribbean Sea. Without so much as a compass, this pathetic excuse of a boat was relying on an old Budweiser billboard to act as a sail. In spite of being sent back to Haiti, the people on board were relieved just to be alive!

Stationed on the USCG Cutter BERTHOLF, Petty Officer Chaz McGee described a rescue of an entirely different nature which occurred not long before they put in at the harbor of Santa Cruz. On patrol, they are constantly on the lookout for something out of the ordinary. This is how they spot drug runners, something just seems off about a vessel or the way it is behaving.

They were well out to sea, roughly 200 nautical miles from shore, and the crew was involved in a transfer exercise. Personnel from one cutter were being moved to another, while a helicopter was delivering supplies to both ships. Chaz spotted a panga not far off that was “acting strangely”. It is not uncommon for these small boats to throw long lines out into the sea and leave them for several hours, but this was something different. The boatman was tossing line over the bow without baiting the hooks or weighting the line. Although it seemed odd, the crew was occupied and could not pursue the matter immediately. The panga left the scene in a hurry and there was nothing that could be done under the circumstances.

Instinct told Chaz that the boatman had been up to no good, so when the transfer was complete, he asked and received permission to take the cutter over to where the nets had been tossed. He believed that the panga captain may have panicked upon seeing the Coast Guard vessel. One possibility was that the captain tossed his cargo of drugs overboard, using the fish line as a cover. A more innocent explanation could have been that he was fishing without a proper license. Whatever it was Chaz was curious and wanted to investigate.

What they found was appalling. Six sea turtles had been caught up in the line, which had tangled into a nasty web. One of the turtles had several lengths of net wound around its neck; there was no doubt the turtles would have perished left on their own. Receiving permission from his superior officer, Chaz and seven shipmates launched a small boat and painstakingly untangled the turtles. This was a rather unique form of “search and rescue”, one he is unlikely to forget. Curiosity may have killed a cat, but it saved the turtles.

(If you want to take a look, there’s a video on the BERTHOLF’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/uscgcbertholf/videos/486471958219016/.)

The US Coast Guard provides a valuable service in the waters of Huatulco, so if you encounter a couple of “Coasties” on shore leave, shake their hands… or better yet, offer to buy them a drink. They are a personable bunch of sailors and are likely to keep you well entertained for your trouble.

Brooke Gazer operates an oceanview Bed & Breakfast in Huatulco.